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Opinion: Dr. King Had A Dream — But Also Warned of A Nightmare

By Josh Clemons
martin luther king jr
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is often reduced to quotable tweets and his quintessential speech, “I Have a Dream.” However, as the nation marks the 60th anniversary of this speech, at great peril I suggest we don’t need his Dream. We need to wrestle with the looming Nightmare that King foresaw. 

Five years removed from the March on Washington, three years after the ratification of Civil Rights, two years beyond the Voting Rights Act, and eight months before he would be assassinated . . . King uttered these prophetic words that would serve us well on this sacred occasion: 

“I must confess that the dream I had that day has, on many points, turned into a nightmare. Now, I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the last few years, and I would say over the last few months.

I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching and agonizing moments. And I’ve come to see that we have many more difficulties ahead, and some of the old optimism was a little superficial, and now it must be tempered with a solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is that we still have a long, long way to go . . .” 

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of King’s most iconic speech, three precious image-bearers were murdered in the name of White Supremacy in a state that has led the charge on revising the Black experience in America. Their names are Angela Carr, 52, Anolt Laguerre, Jr., 19, and Jerrald De’Shaun Gallion, 29. 

Racially motivated terrorist attacks should be no surprise when, in 2020, the Department of Homeland Security named White Supremacist Extremism the #1 domestic terrorism threat in the US. This threat of violence isn’t relegated to racial motivation alone. Gun violence is at an all-time high, with 436 mass shootings in 2023 alone. 

What should be a surprise is that we as a nation have done very little to mitigate such heinous occasions. All the while, the Church remains silent despite claiming that all of life is sacred

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In the words of King: Where do we go from here? Where do we go when our nation’s apparent love for guns has overtaken our love for the sanctity of life? Where do we go since the surge of racially motivated crimes makes clear King’s dream has miscarried into a nightmare? Where do we go when a racially motivated terrorist attack occurs in a state that has taken a revisionist approach to American history, ensuring the erasure of atrocities Blacks have suffered at the hands of White Supremacy? 

Church, we must emerge as a sort of prophetic Wentworth Cheswell, calling the Church back to a whole and complete gospel. We must declare that all people are made in God’s image across color, class, culture, sex, and abilities. All people.

In my opinion, Dr. King’s dream is less of a blueprint and more of a divine portrait. King masterfully illustrates the desired destination at which America must arrive if we are to live up to our fullest potential, and we, the Church, must strategize and move to realize this Dream. 

So I invite you to dream like King, to imagine, illustrate, and implement God’s desire. 

Dream with me of that heavenly people who haven’t stopped with their eternal security with God in Heaven but are seeking to bring a bit of Heaven down to earth. 

Dream with me of a people who would abandon the notions of liberty and the right to bear arms but enact policies that protect the liberty of Black lives and one’s right to flourishing.

Dream with me today of a Church that would seek to raise the conversation on reconciliation, mercy, and justice back to the common language of love. 

Dream with me of a day in which the Church rises to repudiate the treatment of asylum seekers, insisting the disparate sojourner is worthy of love and dignity. 

Dream with me today of the flourishing of all people.

one race atlanta king nightmare
On June 19, 2020, Christians converged on downtown Atlanta, Georgia, as part of a OneRace Movement rally. (Photo: Lindsay Ann / OneRace Movement)

Church, we must abandon trendy activism and the idea that “thoughts and prayers” alone will solve this problem. I invite each of you to be lovers. I invite each of you into the messy fray. I invite you to be an advocate of human flourishing despite what your political and social tribe might suggest. I invite you to the dis-ease to address the disease that we as a nation and Church are facing. I invite you to be constrained by Christ.

I remember the discomfort of our Savior, who, though he was God, didn’t cling to his divine privilege. He came down to earth through the condescension and dwelled among us. He lived a faithful life. And through His crucifixion and resurrection, he successfully defeated sin, annihilated death, destroyed hell, and undermined the grave. 

So let us join the Savior by waging war on notions of White Supremacy and unfettered access to the weapons of war and be constrained by Christ. May we be those ambassadors of truth, love, and justice

My prayer is that the Church realizes that the wall of hostility has been torn down by the defining act of redemption on Calvary, and we, Christ ambassadors, are charged to believe, live, and advocate for that truth. 

Let us lock arms to liberate the Church to love and liberate America to true freedom: all who bear the divine image deserve to live. Christ alone, mobilized through the Church, is the hope of the World. We must act now, as King expressed in his speech, “Where do we go from here?”

Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. (Oh yeah) Whatsoever a man soweth (Yes), that (Yes) shall he also reap.” This is our hope for the future, and with this faith, we will be able to sing in some not-too-distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, “We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe (Yes) we would overcome.”

This article has been reprinted with permission from OneRace Movement.

josh clemons one raceJosh Clemons is the author of Know. Own. Change: Journeying Toward God’s Heart for Reconciliation. He is privileged to serve as a member of the founding team and the Executive Director of OneRace Movement.

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3 Responses

  1. MLK Jr, was iconic in and for his time of life. Yes he was Christian, but what he secured in his time, what he contributed to in his time, was an alliance that drew together Christians and a diverse assemblage of non-Christians. He was a Christian we could all relate to and ally with.
    Now, of course, his life and time have passed; but I would not choose to separate his contribution from that life and time.
    Josh (the author of this opinion piece), is not speaking directly to the person and Christianity that MLK Jr exemplified in the context of his life and time. Rather Josh is speaking directly to what he judges the Christian Church should be doing in this time, in this time of our living, in the circumstance of this time.
    In so doing, in so tying progression to Christ committing, Josh is not likely to be able to replicate the allying to which MLK Jr so richly and centrally contributed. While KLK Jr made his Christianity the fulcrum of his seminal contribution, Josh’s focused intensity is so directed towards the Church, and perhaps a constituency of the oppressed, that it may end not having the reach into the constituency of non-Christians that MLK Jr had, and arguably has.
    That sees Josh’s project worthy, it needing to stand on its own in its time and living, and not needing to define itself against the different project of MLK Jr. Leave us who shared the time of MLK Jr, with what that sharing meant to us at that time. Inspire us with another Christian impulse, in this later time, in this moment of living.

  2. Grateful for this opinion piece – I have not heard of Josh before this.
    I also would like to challenge us (as believers) to read more of MLK’s speeches and writings. While we love to quote the same line from the same speech, we can gain a lot more insight into MLK’s dream – AND his warnings – by expanding our interest and awareness towards his other work.

  3. On the grounds that this article deserves more than two comments.
    Whether we use the metaphor of MLK Jr being a fulcrum for crucial historical events, or instead use the Christian metaphor of God working; it need not be the case that MLK Jr is central to both dream and nightmare. It is a colossal matter that MLK Jr was central to the “dream” moment, where his personal Christianity is there validated absolutely. It is not then necessarily the case that he is so centrally suited to the “nightmare” moment. Rather his personal movement from dream to nightmare, arguably speaks to the limits of his person and Christianity, in melding the alliances we need to see us collectively travelling the long long way we still have to go.
    The risk I think I’m speaking to, is a retreat to the idea that Christianity is enough to see us taking that long long road. It’s not. Rather it’s what sustains a crucially important community of fellow travelers. Where all who are willing to take this long road, must be willing and able to die to their own faith at its limiting moment, in order to blend into a greater confluence of human determination.
    MLK Jr, in the dream event moment, secured that confluence. He thereby served, and in a sense was exhausted thereby. Thereby demonstrating the limitations of what Christianity and Christian could achieve on their own.

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